Alex was bored with his business but that was okay because it gave him plenty of time to pursue his real passion; sailing. And it was this passion that led him to invent a product that took him on a successful and rewarding business journey. He invented a hat for the sailing community that would not get blown off and would not sink if it fell into the water. Alex Tilley invented what is now the world famous Tilley Hat.
Alex knew absolutely nothing about designing or making hats but he did know what he wanted. So he paid people to work under his guidance and created prototype after prototype until he finally got it right. He then went on to develop his famous sailing shorts but ran into serious difficulties because the designers he worked with just didn’t get it. So what did he do? He turned to the clothing experts working for the US military for their advice and the shorts were born!
What is the lesson here for us business owners? You can’t know it all and you can’t do it all. Find the people who can execute your ideas and then manage them closely. Second lesson; if you are as passionate about your idea as Alex was about his hat don’t give up.
Despite his belief in the shorts no one seemed to share his enthusiasm. So he decided to abandon them and gave them to the Canadian team competing in the 1983 America Cup; the Grand Prix of the competitive sailing world. That did it! Interest grew and today we still have the famous Tilley shorts.
From all of this Tilley Endurables was born in 1984 as a mail order business run from Alex’s home. Less than 30 years later there are 6 company stores, thousands of retailers around the world carrying the Tilley line, an international mail order business, a catalogue that has won awards and a range of travel clothing from underwear to outerwear to headwear.
Like all our business stories the company was not an overnight success and did not grow without serious challenges. They decided to expand into the US starting with Boston. Like many a Canadian business before and after them they assumed the US would be the same as Canada only bigger. They were wrong; dead wrong. They were close to bankruptcy when finally they retreated from the US. Years later, much wiser and financially stronger they successfully grew their US market.
You cannot have a story about Tilley’s without mentioning their retail store located at their headquarters in Toronto. All business owners should go there to see how to make the customer experience a WOW experience! The design is striking, the staff are helpful and knowledgeable and everywhere are pictures and messages from the Tilley community. How Tilley has been successful in building a strong and loyal community must be the subject of another case study. They have built their business on the testimonials of their customers. They don’t advertise their business; their customers advertise their business!
So what happened to his boring business? He finished with that in the very early days of Tilley Endurables so he could focus his attention on building the business he loves. And he travels extensively. By his own estimate he has been to over 1,050 cities in over 50 countries. He is living what his company preaches.